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Liftoff a sign of emerging India

But Chandrayaan-1 isn’t about a scientific generation gap: The successful launch of our lunar mission is the latest step towards achieving India’s great-power ambitions, writes Amit Baruah.

india Updated: Oct 23, 2008 01:16 IST
Amit Baruah

It comes 49 years after the erstwhile Soviet Union became the first nation on earth to send a spacecraft to the moon.

But Chandrayaan-1 isn’t about a scientific generation gap: The successful launch of our lunar mission is the latest step towards achieving India’s great-power ambitions.

It comes 45 days after India elbowed its way officially into the world’s nuclear club. With Wednesday’s flawless liftoff, India joined the United States, Russia, the European Space Agency, Japan and China in sending research missions to the moon.

“It (the launch) is a recognition of India as an emerging power and economy. Chandrayaan-I symbolises that emergence,” Science & Technology Minister Kapil Sibal told Hindustan Times.

The cost of the mission is itself an achievement.

At Rs 386 crore ($79 million), Chandrayaan-1 is the cheapest lunar mission ever - China’s first moon probe cost over $187 million when launched in October 2007, while Japan’s Kayuga, launched in September 2007, cost $480 million.

That’s just a tenth of the money Sony Television paid for the telecast rights to the Indian Premier League.
With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh landing in Beijing on Thursday night to attend the Asia-Europe Meeting, comparisons between the Indian and the Chinese strategic capabilities in space were inevitable.

A range of experts said the moon mission was about positioning India for the future and creating technologies with a wide range of applications.

“Fifty years ago, no one could have imagined that a man will land on the moon,” George Joseph, a former director of the Satellite Applications Centre, told Hindustan Times. “Fifty years on, colonies on the moon could be possible. India should be on the forefront of this endeavour.”

Strategic experts pointed out that the PSLV used on Wednesday, with some rejigging, can be used as an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile.

“Unwittingly, we have become a major player. Today, India has the resources do things we couldn’t have dreamed of doing only a few years ago,” a former ISRO scientist told HT.

“My sense is that the Chandrayaan-I will galvanise research in basic sciences.”

“This is not just about science, its about geopolitics,” Joseph said, pointing out that countries were increasingly dependent on satellites for all critical communications. “Protecting our satellites is an important goal.”

India is a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which is silent on the use of mineral resources or the setting up of colonies on the Moon. However, India, like other major space-faring nations like the US, Russia and China, has not ratified the Moon Treaty of 1979, which bans the military use of celestial bodies.

“The weaponisation of outer space looks inevitable,” one expert, who preferred anonymity, said.

On Monday, US official Karen House told the United Nations that the US opposed legally-binding arms control proposals related to space, but supported voluntary and concrete measures.